The Japanese are always fascinating. Their culture is likely born of the hothouse- long periods of segregation from outside influences, like in a greenhouse, promote a lush growth, but also a delicacy that does not always translate into the greater world. And a fear of The Other.
They have produced some of the most interesting things to look at. Frank Lloyd Wright, among others, was greatly enamored of the Japanese style. Through reading about him, I was steered towards Hiroshige, and Hokusai. I never tire of Mount Fuji and cranes and waves when such as they churn them out.
What am I to make, then, of Kodomo No Kuni? Kodomo No Kuni (Children’s Place, or Children’s Wonderland) was a children’s magazine published in Japan from 1922 through 1949. And it’s beautiful and touching. And it’s disturbing, because it’s not disturbing at all.
I’ve always found that period of the 1920s and thirties fascinating. The world was becoming modern, in the true sense of the world, and various cultures and countries were trying to make sense of it. And no one got it wronger than the Japanese.
Everybody got it wrong, really. There were just varying versions of bad, and worse, and frivolous, and stubborn obsolescence. No one really understood what the enormous changes in technology and macroeconomics meant to the human race. Do we now?
If you look at the pictures of the children in Kodomo No Kuni, and see how the artists are trying to convey a message about fitting in in a world that’s shifting rapidly. We in America still read Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel to our children as a nostalgia piece, but originally it was made to explain the newfangled world to a disoriented public. Time marches fast, and sometimes people rely on old thinking because they are adrift in events. The best things in culture help us to see the new things while standing on the shoulders of what has come before. Dynamism yoked to Traditionalism. Not Reactionaries and Deconstructivists, thanks.
The real problem is that old thinking is tarted up as the Next Big Thing all the time. The most antediluvian idea is presented as cutting edge by the same old busybodies. And the oldest idea in the world is “us against them” when the going gets rough or disorienting.
Even when wonderful things happen, the pace of change accelerates and makes people nervous. Nervous people are susceptible to the idea that there is a force behind everything, and that force is nefarious by its very existence, and since somebody designs everything, we might as well decide who that someone is and put him in charge. There is never a shortage of persons ready to tell you they’re up to the job.
The real problem is that human society isn’t really “run” by anybody anymore. Everything has long since become too complex for anybody to know very much about anything, never mind most things. But human beings always desire to see a face in what is formless. And to my way of thinking, people who see the hidden hand of human interactions and think: it must be a cabal, and we can run it better, are much more superstitious than any holy roller. At least the vast bulk of holy rollers ascribe to the idea that life, the universe, and everything is not knowable. It’s the fellows and ladies that say: “I can run the world better than the folks that do now” that worry me. Because “no one” is running the world now, and replacing “no one” with “someone” makes perfectly lovely people, raised in beauty and love and respect for others, like the beautiful children depicted in these amazing magazines, grow up and fly kamikaze planes into aircraft carriers when they’re done with the Rape of Nanking.
Read Kodomo No Kuni, and weep a little, perhaps, for those weaned on it who didn’t get to live in the world they saw in it.